A New Game Plan For China's Nuclear Arsenal?
Image Credit: DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

A New Game Plan For China's Nuclear Arsenal?

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In a system where order and sequences have a highly symbolic value, Xi Jinping’s first promotion of a military officer to generalship, added to a high-profile visit last week, can tells us a few things about his priorities for the military and what to look out for in the future. More than any other branch of the People’s Liberation Army, the Second Artillery Corps — which controls the country’s conventional and nuclear ballistic missile arsenal — appears to be where Xi’s interest lies.

Xi’s first act as the newly appointed chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) was to promote Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe, the 58-year-old commander-in-chief of the Second Artillery and a CMC member, to full general on November 23. Aside from increasing defense spending, the promotion of senior officers is regarded as the best way for Chinese leaders to consolidate their power over the armed forces.

As he quickly attempts to strengthen his control over the armed forces, Xi’s immediate consideration in promoting Wei may also have had something to do with the disgraced former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, whose ties to the Second Artillery Corps — more specifically, Second Artillery Political Commissar General Zhang Haiyang — had been seen by Beijing as a threat to their hold on power. Although Zhang managed to retain his seat on the Central Committee, he did not rise to the CMC — Wei did.

Beyond the political jockeying, Xi has indicated that the Second Artillery will play a more important role in the future. During a meeting with officers from the Second Artillery on December 5, the new CMC chief said the forces were “a strategic pillar of China’s great power status,” adding that the Corps was the “core force” of the nation’s “strategic deterrent” and an “important bedrock” to protect national security. In addition to emphasizing the need for the Second Artillery Corps to submit fully to party control, Xi called on it to develop a “powerful and technological missile force.”

Aside from the intercontinental nuclear missile arsenal, the Second Artillery also controls short- and medium-range missiles that can be used against Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, as well as U.S. bases in Okinawa. As part of China’s evolving anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, the Corps also operates the DF-21D, commonly referred to as the “carrier killer,” a missile that, once fully operational, could greatly complicate the deployment of U.S. or allied naval forces within the first island chain and beyond. Much of the current future investment in the Second Artillery derives from Beijing’s understanding that rapid modernization of its other military branches notwithstanding, it still cannot hope (nor does it desire) to fight and defeat U.S. forces in conventional battles.

But that’s for conventional missiles. What of China’s strategic nuclear arsenal? In an “explanatory reading” soon after Xi’s speech, Wang Haiyun, a retired PLA major general, told Hong Kong media that this was the first time that the “mission and status of China’s strategic nuclear forces were articulated in a public setting,” adding that the speech represented a possible departure from previous statements by senior Chinese officials about the role of China’s nuclear arsenal.

According to Wang’s interpretation of Xi’s remarks — which by no means should be accepted as official policy in Beijing — the latter may be in the process of shifting away from China’s current no-first-use (NFU) nuclear policy—which among other things, states that China will only use nuclear weapons if it first comes under nuclear attack—to a more ambiguous nuclear policy where nuclear weapons could potentially be used in a broader set of contingencies.

Coincidentally, recent comments by some U.S. defense analysts could reinforce Beijing’s view that a strong nuclear arsenal should play a greater role in its defense posture. One could imagine this being part of China’s response to Washington’s so-called AirSea battle concept, which envisions the U.S. using massive amounts of conventional firepower against the Chinese homeland.

Partly in response to his concern that  an AirSea battle concept would inevitable result in a nuclear exchange between China and the United States, retired colonel T.X. Hammes has been making the case for what he calls an “offshore control” (OC) strategy that, instead of attempting to defeat China through conventional strikes on its territory or within the first island chain, seeks instead to neutralize much of China’s investment in A2/AD by operating outside the range of its capabilities. As Hammes explains it, under an offshore control strategy the U.S. “partners with Asia-Pacific nations to ensure the U.S. ability to interdict China’s energy and raw-material imports and industrial exports while protecting those nations.” In other words, rather than fight, the U.S. would try to choke China economically.

Hammes argues that an OC strategy, which would avoid penetration attacks on China proper, would reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation. This is a plausible scenario, but only if China’s nuclear doctrine of no-first-use remains unchanged. If, as Wang contends, Beijing is in the process of adopting a more expansive nuclear policy, an OC strategy used in a conflict of long duration could prompt Beijing to threaten nuclear use. If U.S. forces turn the tables on China and adopt an asymmetric approach that seeks to avoid China’s strengths, one possible response would be for Beijing to respond by reconsidering the contingencies in which it would rely on its nuclear forces.

Xi’s early moves already point to his interest in making the Second Artillery Corps a linchpin element of China’s future armed forces. As no system is static, U.S. military strategy towards China could very well precipitate further moves in that direction.

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